How do you turn a philosophically complex 118-page theological fantasy into a 90-minute stage play that entertains while provoking thought and discussion? That was the task for Fellowship for the Performing Arts Founder and Artistic Director Max McLean and his collaborators as they fashioned theater from the 1945 C.S. Lewis book “The Great Divorce”.
McLean feels good about the results, and if notices from Phoenix, Ariz. (where the show premiered in December) and Charleston, S.C. are any indication, his feeling is shared by those that have already seen the production that plays for three performances this weekend (two Saturday and one Sunday) in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater.
“I think it’s very, very challenging,” says the New York-based McLean, who adapted the book and its tale of a bus ride from Hell to Heaven for the stage with playwright Brian Watkins. “I didn’t know if it would work as theater, but it has turned out to be a satisfying theatrical experience.
“I’m really pleased with it. It’s provocative, it’s dealing with ideas that very few people think about and it captures the imagination. It’s very dense and yet still accessible.”
If McLean’s name rings a bell it’s likely because he’s been here before with an audience-pleasing and critically-acclaimed theatrical version of Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. That show is in its seventh year after appearing in more than 50 major cities throughout the United States. Over 350,000 theatergoers have seen Screwtape over the course of its national tour (now in its fourth year) as well as successful “sit-down” productions in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.
“Screwtape was the same thing – a theological fantasy. It was a “What if?” and Lewis’s agenda was to capture people’s imagination and have them think about the supernatural world,” McLean notes. “The Great Divorce is much more dependent on scenery (which Kelly James Tighe designed for this production). You have to create Lewis’s vision of Hell, you have to create his vision of the outskirts of Heaven and you have to suggest those things in a way that audiences will buy it.
“And the celestial journey between Heaven and Hell is also significant. In order to execute all that we’ve employed a terrific projection designer (Chris Kateff) to help us tell the story. The set, the sound (by John Gromada, who also provides original music), the light design (by Michael Gilliam) and projection design are critical to telling the story of The Great Divorce.”
What was it like as McLean adapted the book with Watkins? “I found the book very disorienting, and a very demanding book, because you’ve got all these hopelessly flawed characters, but they’re not beyond salvation,” he says. “You meet them along the way, and it seems like given the choice of Heaven or Hell, most of them would choose Hell. That speaks to one of Lewis’s most controversial questions: Are the doors of Hell really locked from the inside?
“Do we create Hell through our own choices, our stubbornness, our lack of humility, and then we live in our own creation? I feel Lewis would think without the interference of grace we’re not even capable of choosing anything else. And I think that’s what Lewis is trying to say in The Great Divorce.
“One of the most famous lines in the book is, ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”’ The book is about free will and our ability to use it, but I think Lewis’s take on free will is that left to our own devices we will use our free will to create Hell.”
The play stars Tom Beckett (Bobby Boland, Epic Proportions and The Father on Broadway and “Elbridge Gerry” in HBO’s John Adams), Joel Rainwater (The Lion King, National Tour) and Christa Scott-Reed (The Pitmen Painters on Broadway). “They’re one of the best ensembles I’ve ever seen work,” McLean says. “They’re all character actors and they have to be transformational – between the three actors they play 19 characters and they’re each onstage about 90 percent of the time. …They work together as a great team and they’re fun to watch. I think the transformational aspect of their acting is one of the joys of the production.”
Lewis is essentially the narrator in the book; in the play all three actors take turns with that role. “In the book the narrator is one of the least interesting characters,” McLean says. “Theatrically part of our journey is discovering how is he different at the end of the play from the beginning.”
Bill Castellino directs: “A very gifted director – you’ll see his imprint all over this piece,” says McLean. “He’s got a great choreographic sense, and I think that element has served the play well.”
In addition to the current tour McLean hopes to have a future full production of The Great Divorce in New York after lab and development outings there last year. And his next project is a new play called Martin Luther on Trial, which “looks at the reformer’s legacy after 500 years” according to McLean and features Lucifer as prosecutor, Luther’s wife Kate (aka Katharina von Bora) as defense attorney and such witnesses as Josel of Rosheim, Sigmund Freud and Adolph Hitler.
But for now he’s primarily focused on the show that’s just finding its legs. Such works as “The Great Divorce”, “The Screwtape Letters” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” have kept Lewis – who died in 1963 on the same day as John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley – a staple of public discourse for several decades. McLean’s take may provide one of the answers to Lewis’s enduring appeal: “I think Lewis is really good at (storytelling) because he’s so witty, and so generous and wise,” he says, “that when he gives you a hard teaching it’s something you can receive, whereas so often when you’re given a hard teaching the way it’s taught to you makes it very difficult to take.”
The Great Divorce will be presented by Fellowship for the Performing Arts at TPAC’s Polk Theater (505 Deaderick St.) on Saturday, March 29 at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 30 at 3 p.m. Tickets ($29-$59; student seats are $25 with student ID required; for groups of 10 or more – including student groups – call 866.476.8707) are available online at www.greatdivorceonstage.com or at the TPAC website by clicking here, by visiting the TPAC Box Office (Monday-Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or one hour prior to performances) or by calling 615.782.4040.
*Photos from The Great Divorce by Gerry Goodstein courtesy the Fellowship for the Performing Arts.